Too Much Money Nearly Killed Lord Byron
All of us are concerned now with not having enough money. Many peoople are without work. The crisis has reduced the value of retirement accounts and houses. Maybe this is the moment to reflect on how art, words, verses, and knowledge about the past are riches we still possess? It may also be some consolation to know that having too much money, especially too early in life, can be a disaster. It can cause lifelong injuries. Lord Byron was one of the greatest poets of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. He inherited fabulous wealth when he was only a boy. He endured a painful process of self-discovery before he realized that his poetic gift, his ability with words, his writing, were all worth infinitely more than the big English country house that dropped in his lap when he was only ten. This is a fragment of his childhood biography that shows what birth and wealth did to him, as well as how he began to make a recovery without them.
Landowning was the principal source of prestige in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. Byron’s mother’s family, the Gordons, were landowners. The Byrons were too, but because Byron’s father was a younger son, he had almost no chance of inheriting land in his lifetime. Byron’s mother never let him forget this. She was always contemptuous of the “southron Byrons,” whom she regarded as wastrels and her social inferiors.
In changing the spelling to reflect her pronunciation, Byron was making his first boyish attempt at coping by making fun of her. She could trace her ancestry back to King James I, a fourteenth-century king of Scotland. She spoke of this so frequently that it became rich comic material for her son. “My mother,” he used to say, “was as haughty as Lucifer with her descent from the Stuarts.”
She was entitled to be called laird of Gight because of a small castle she inherited outside of Aberdeen. She and her husband, Jack Byron, lived there for a time soon after they were married. He married her because he needed her fortune to pay off mountainous debts. After only a short time, these debts forced the couple to sell off the castle at Gight for ready money. The Gight estate soon acquired a reputation for bad luck. Catherine Byron sold the property to the earl of Aberdeen, a Gordon relative of hers, who lived in grandeur at a Palladian house nearby. Lord Aberdeen’s young heir, Lord Haddo, later broke his neck being thrown from his horse while riding on the Gight estate.
Today Gight is still owned by the Gordons. The surrounding park is managed by the local government. The castle is a ruin. The roof has fallen in. It’s surrounded by nettles. There’s a sign warning walkers that climbing over the castle’s fallen walls is dangerous.
Catherine Byron was overweight. She was ungainly in her manners as well as in her marriage. She was not stupid. She was politically well-informed. She was ahead of her time in her political sympathies. Unusually among British landowners at the end of the eighteenth century, she was in favor of the French revolutionaries in their efforts to rid France of corruption. She was no admirer of the French monarchy or aristocracy. She believed more strongly in liberty and equality than in history and tradition. She passed on these liberal beliefs to her son.
Nevertheless, she was changeable and often selfish. When she sent Byron to his first boarding school at Dulwich, outside of London, she was forever arriving at the last minute to take him out of school again without warning. The headmaster protested that being taken away wouldn’t help her boy with his lessons. She didn’t care. She raised her voice high enough to be overheard by the boys in a neighboring schoolroom. One of Byron’s schoolmates observed “Byron, your mother is a fool.” “I know it,” Byron replied.
It’s important not to judge her by our values. When you were born a nobleman with an estate two hundred years ago, it was less important to be bookish or to be good at the qualities schoolmasters cared about than it was to be able to fight, to lead, and to improve the land. Those were qualities not always learned in school and Mrs. Byron knew it.
Byron had almost no contact with his father’s side of the family before he inherited Newstead Abbey. What he learned from his mother was not promising. His father had taken not only Catherine’s money, but also the money of his first wife, who died young. When Jack Byron left his second wife in Aberdeen with their two-year-old boy, he went across the Channel. It was easier to escape his creditors in France. He lived with his sister there. It was said the two of them also shared a bed and a sexual relationship.
The Byrons were an unusually chancy family. Jack Byron’s uncle, from whom his son would eventually inherit the estate and the title, was known as “the wicked lord.” He’d actually killed a neighboring Nottinghamshire landowner in a dispute. He escaped punishment through a trial in the House of Lords, to which he was entitled by his peerage. The other peers let him off. England and France were both places where aristocratic corruption was rife. Although the best tradition of landowning was to pass on an estate improved and enhanced to the heirs, the wicked lord did just the opposite. He cut down the trees on the Newstead estate and sold them for timber. He left behind debts and mortgages in two different counties.
Byron’s first architectural encounter with his inheritance, however, may have been a turning point in his attitude to his father’s side of the family. Arriving at Newstead today is still an impressive sight. There’s an ornamental lake, big enough to stage mock naval battles. Next to the lake is the ruin of an abbey with its roof off, its windows with no glass, and the memorial stones that line its interior open to the weather. Here are dozens of graves of long-dead Byrons. Their marriages are celebrated. Their children are named. Their achievements are listed. Imagine a ten-year-old boy wandering among these graves. Here was physical evidence that his mother’s low opinion of his father’s family was wrong.
The Byrons were connected with national history at key points. They had large landholdings in the north at the time of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. In the sixteenth century Henry VIII gave them their title and their estate for loyalty and service to him. More recently there’d been an Admiral Byron, “the circumnavigator,” known for an amazing feat in the world before steam. He’d circled the globe on board ship. Byron Bay in Australia is named for him.
In coming to recognize and to feel a sense of pride in the Byrons who’d come before him, Byron began to take another step outside his mother’s shadow. He began to become his own person not just because of the land and the title, but because of an attitude to the Byrons that was different from his mother’s. In some of the first verses he ever wrote, only five years after inheriting the property, he remembered these gravestones. They marked the “shades of heroes.” They gave him “new courage,” as well as determination.
In the same poem also comes a warning note, possibly connected with May Gray, the nursemaid from whom he’d suffered childhood abuse. It may be also from his first sexual experience with an adult male. This was a man in his twenties, Byron’s tenant in the house while he was away at school, Lord Grey de Ruthyn. Byron recalls the fame of the Byrons, before he suddenly becomes self-conscious. He promises not to dishonor them with his own bad behavior. He will not “disgrace” them. A poem that begins in heroism suddenly turns to reflect on shame.
Anxiety about his ancestry, and whether or not he could live up to the title that had come to him almost by chance returned to him throughout his life. It’s an insecurity about his peerage. One of the things even people who loved him remembered about him was that he liked to remind everyone that he was a lord. This was something British lords seldom did. When you come across them even today their strategy is usually to charm and to disarm by masking their titles, to pretend that they don’t matter. They behave as if a peerage is something silly and negligible. Byron did the opposite. At its foundation this bad behavior of his marks the extent of his hurt. He was hurt in his deformed foot, hurt in his early introduction to sexuality, hurt in the privileges given to him with no effort on his part, and hurt in his suspicion that the peerage wasn’t really his.
Only what he made himself was worthy of the pride he had in his peerage. That was his poetry. At his best, and in his most sparkling poem, he could write with laughable insouciance about sexuality. He could laugh off abuse, laugh off immorality, laugh off shame. This line of his still manages to delight and surprise approximately 200 years after he wrote it. Byron wrote of a very young man’s shock at his first sexual encounter with an older woman. “If you think ’twas philosophy that this did, I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.” A man who could write a line like that owned things that were better than big houses.